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Los Angeles Unified is Academic Decathlon's star student

It's not often that schools across the country look with envy at Los Angeles' public schools, where monumental budget woes, potential widespread teacher layoffs and a long list of hurdles confront the sprawling, diverse school system.

But in the Academic Decathlon — a grueling intellectual high school competition — the Los Angeles Unified School District has become the best in the nation.

L.A. Unified schools have won the national Academic Decathlon competition 11 times since 1987, more than any other school district. In the last decade, L.A. Unified schools won six of the titles. This week, Granada Hills Charter High School enters the national competition in North Carolina as a frontrunner, coming in with the highest score from the state competition.

So what makes L.A. Unified such a powerhouse?

For one, the best coaches know the secret sauce, the ingredients for a winning team. They have an eye for talent and scour their schools for the nine A, B and C students required to form a team. They can spot the right kind of C student — the ones who are smart but don't apply themselves. And they know that a couple of strong students in one subject can carry weaker team members.

In the nation's second-largest school district, the coaches also have a deep pool from which to pick the best students — the ones who don't mind adding the decathlon to their college applications.

And they begin early. Granada Hills hasn't even finished the season, yet coaches are looking forward to the next, researching the competition's theme for the year — the Age of Empires — and scouting for their next team.

They're looking at test scores and grade-point averages, and they have an eye on students in such other extracurriculars as debate, robotics and even junior varsity football.

Nick Weber, a Granada Hills coach, said the strategy of making a good team doesn't mean poaching, say, the best in debate or the athlete who's going to make varsity. Instead, he said, it requires picking from the middle, taking the intelligent, dedicated students with good character.

They also must find students willing to surrender their free time — including vacations and weekends — to practice. By one estimate, a team like Granada Hills will have spent about 300 hours studying over the course of a decathlon season. They do this while keeping up with their regular classes.

To keep the coaches motivated, the district pays them the same stipend of about $2,800 that football coaches receive.

Holding it all together is Cliff Ker, who has been the decathlon coordinator since 2000. Working out of a district office tucked away near Birmingham High School in Lake Balboa, Ker's walls and bookshelves are lined with mementos from competitions and portraits of winning teams posing with governors and presidents. He can name each student and knows where most of them went on to college.

Although his budget has been reduced from $300,000 to below $90,000, the veteran administrator said it's his job to keep such distractions away from the students and coaches so they can focus on winning.

"My main challenge," Ker said, "is to carry on the tradition of excellence."

Southern California schools have won the national title nine times in the last decade — including L.A. Unified's El Camino Real (five times) and Taft High, both in Woodland Hills. Their toughest competitors are from Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois and Arizona.

Anne Edelstein, state director for the Arizona Academic Decathlon, is one of the competitors who hopes to end California's winning streak this week. "We wish they weren't so good," she said with a laugh.

The Academic Decathlon began in 1968 in Orange County. A decade later, it was brought to Los Angeles to see if a program that worked in suburban schools could be replicated in a more diverse urban environment, said Paul Possemato, a retired district administrator who oversaw the competition's launch in L.A.

What started with six teams quickly blossomed into 50 participating schools over a few years, with the district grabbing its first national competition when John Marshall High took the top title in 1987.

This year, 74 schools participated in the local competition; 11 made it to the state contest in March.

The decathlon tests students in math and science, economics, social studies, art and music theory. They have to give a speech, be interviewed by judges, write an essay and take part in the Super Quiz, a rapid-response trivia relay. The competition's theme this year is the Great Depression.

The teams begin preparing before school lets out for the summer. But the trick, coaches say, is to take a measured approach: Academic Decathlon is a marathon in which a competitor wants to have the most energy at the end of the race, not get burned out by regionals.

They spend the year poring through guidebooks the size of a dictionary. The coaches will also sift research materials of their own. And they bring in teachers with particular expertise to help students learn the material.

An intense competition has emerged between high schools in Los Angeles, as cross-town rivals strive to beat each other at the regionals and pass them up at the state level.

"We've formed this tradition to take this very seriously, more so than other schools in California," said Arthur Berchin, who led Taft to three national wins. "It's become a rivalry in our district. As a result, we've done well."

Coaches often share tips, and veterans take rookies under their wing. Coaches of teams that had been Granada Hills' rivals just weeks ago came by recently to work with students who needed help.

In a district that gets a fair share of criticism, winning the Academic Decathlon adds a level of prestige, said Spencer Wolf, a Granada Hills coach.

Eugene Lee, a Granada Hills senior and a top scorer in math, spent his spring break working on his weaker areas: drilling for the Super Quiz and practicing his speech. He said the team is focused now on one thing: winning.

"It's always in the back of our minds," he said.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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